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Life Sentences

Chapter 1

"Well," the bookstore manager said, "it is Valentine's Day."

It's not that bad, Cassandra wanted to say in her own defense. But she never wanted to sound peevish or disappointed. She must smile, be gracious and self-deprecating. She would emphasize how wonderfully intimate the audience was, providing her with an opportunity to talk, have a real exchange, not merely prate about herself. Besides, it wasn't tragic, drawing thirty people on a February night in the suburbs of San Francisco. On Valentine's Day. Most of the writers she knew would kill for thirty people under these circumstances, under any circumstances.

And there was no gain in reminding the bookseller --- Beth, Betsy, Bitsy, oh dear, the name had vanished, her memory was increasingly buggy --- that Cassandra had drawn almost two hundred people to this same store on this precise date four years earlier. Because that might imply she thought someone was to blame for to-night's turnout, and Cassandra Fallows didn't believe in blame. She was famous for it. Or had been.

She also was famous for rallying, and she did just that as she took five minutes to freshen up in the manager's office, brushing her hair and reapplying lipstick. Her hair, her worst feature as a child, was now her best, sleek and silver, but her lips seemed thinner. She adjusted her earrings, smoothed her skirt, reminding herself of her general good fortune. She had a job she loved; she was healthy. Lucky, I am lucky. She could quit now, never write a word again, and live quite comfortably. Her first two books were annuities, more reliable than any investment.

Her third book --- ah, well, that was the unloved, misshapen child she was here to exalt.

At the lectern, she launched into a talk that was already honed and automatic ten days into the tour. There was a pediatric hospital across the road from where I grew up. The audience was mostly female, over forty. She used to get more men, but then her memoirs, especially the second one, had included unsparing detail about her promiscuity, a healthy appetite that had briefly gotten out of control in her early forties. It was a long-term-care facility, where children with extremely challenging diagnoses were treated for months, for years in some cases. Was that true? She hadn't done that much research about Kernan. The hospital had been skittish, dubious that a writer known for memoir was capable of creating fiction. Cassandra had decided to go whole hog, abandon herself to the libertine ways of a novelist. Forgo the fact-checking, the weeks in libraries, the conversations with family and friends, trying to make her memories gibe with hard, cold certainty. For the first time in her life --- despite what her second husband had claimed --- she made stuff up out of whole cloth. The book is an homage to The Secret Garden --- in case the title doesn't make that clear enough --- and it's set in the 1980s because that was a time when finding biological parents was still formidably difficult, almost taboo, a notion that began to lose favor in the 1990s and is increasingly out of fashion as biological parents gain more rights. It had never occurred to Cassandra that the world at large, much like the hospital, would be reluctant to accept her in this new role. The story is wholly fictional, although it's set in a real place.

She read her favorite passage. People laughed in some odd spots.

Question time. Cassandra never minded the predictability of the Q-and-A sessions, never resented being asked the same thing over and over. It didn't even bother her when people spoke of her father and mother and stepmother and ex-husbands as if they were characters in a novel, fictional constructs they were free to judge and psychoanalyze. But it disturbed her now when audience members wanted to pin down the "real" people in her third book. Was she Hannah, the watchful child who unwittingly sets a tragedy in motion? Or was she the boy in the body cast, Woodrow? Were the parents modeled on her own? They seemed so different, based on the historical record she had created. Was there a fire? An accident in the abandoned swimming pool that the family could never afford to repair?

"Did your father really drive a retired Marathon cab, painted purple?" asked one of the few men in the audience, who looked to be at least sixty. Retired, killing time at his wife's side. "I ask only because my father had an old DeSoto and . ....."

Of course, she thought, even as she smiled and nodded. You care about the details that you can relate back to yourself. I've told my story, committed over a quarter of a million words to paper so far. It's your turn. Again, she was not irked. Her audience's need to share was to be expected. If a writer was fortunate enough to excite people's imaginations, this was part of the bargain, especially for the memoir writer she had been and apparently would continue to be in the public's mind, at least for now. She had told her story, and that was the cue for them to tell theirs. Given what confession had done for her soul, how could she deny it to anyone else?

"Time for one last question," the store manager said, and pointed to a woman in the back. She wore a red raincoat, shiny with moisture, and a shapeless khaki hat that tied under her chin with a leather cord.

"Why do you get to write the story?"

Cassandra was at a loss for words.

"I'm not sure I understand," she began. "You mean, how do I write a novel about people who aren't me? Or are you asking how one gets published?"

"No, with the other books. Did you get permission to write them?"

"Permission to write about my own life?"

"But it's not just your life. It's your parents, your stepmother, friends. Did you let them read it first?"

"No. They knew what  I was doing, though. And I fact-checked as much as I could, admitted the fallibility of my memory throughout. In fact that's a recurring theme in my work."

The woman was clearly unsatisfied with the answer. As others lined up to have their books signed, she stalked to the cash register at the front of the store. Cassandra would have loved to dismiss her as a philistine, a troublemaker irritable because she had nothing better to do on Valentine's Day. But she carried an armful of impressive-looking books, although Cassandra didn't see her own spine among them. The woman was like the bad fairy at a christening. Why do I get to write the story? Because I'm a writer.

Toward the end of the line --- really, thirty people on a wet, windy Valentine's Day was downright impressive --- a woman produced a battered paperback copy of Cassandra's first book.

"In-store purchases only," the manager said, and Cassandra couldn't blame her. It was hard enough to be a bookseller these days without people bringing in their secondhand books to be signed.

"Just one can't hurt," said Cassandra, a forever child of divorce, instinctively the peacemaker.

"I can't afford many hardcovers," the woman apologized. She was one of the few young ones in the crowd and pretty, although she dressed and stood in a way that suggested she was not yet in possession of that information. Cassandra knew the type. Cassandra had been the type. Do you sleep with a lot of men? she wanted to ask her. Overeat? Drink, take drugs? Daddy issues?

"To...?" Fountain pen poised over the title page. God, how had this ill-designed book found so many readers? It had been a relief when the publisher repackaged it, with the now de rigueur book club questions in the back and a new essay on how she had come to write the book at all, along with updated information on the principals. It had been surprisingly painful, recounting Annie's death in that revised epilogue. She was caught off guard by how much she missed her stepmother.

"Oh, you don't have to write anything special."

"I want to write whatever you want me to write."

The young woman seemed overwhelmed by this generosity. Her eyes misted and she began to stammer. "Oh --- no --- well, Cathleen. With a C. I --- this book meant so much to me. It was as if it was my story."

This was always hard to hear, even though Cassandra understood the sentiment was a compliment, the very secret of her success. She could argue, insist on the individuality of her autobiography, deny the universality that had made it appealing to so many --- or she could cash the checks and tell herself with a blithe shrug, "Fuck you, Tolstoy. Apparently, even the unhappy families are all alike."

To Cathleen, she wrote in the space between the title, My Father's Daughter, and her own name. Find your story and tell it.

"Your signature is so pretty," Cathleen said. "Like you. You're actually very pretty in person."

The girl blushed, realizing what she had implied. Yet she was far from the first person to say this. Cassandra's author photo was severe, a little cold. Men often complained about it.

"You're pretty in person, too," she told the girl, saving her with her own words. "And I wouldn't be surprised if you found there was a book in your story. You should consider telling it."

"Well, I'm trying," Cathleen admitted.

Of course you are. "Good luck."

When the line dispersed, Cassandra asked the bookstore manager, "Do you want me to sign stock?"

"Oh," the manager said with great surprise, as if no one had ever sought to do this before, as if it were an innovation that Cassandra had just introduced to bookselling. "Sure. Although, I wouldn't expect you to do all of them. That would be too much to ask. Perhaps that stack?"

Betsey/Beth/Bitsy knew and Cassandra knew that even a stack, perhaps a fifth of the store's order, could be returned once signed. So many things unspoken, so many unpleasant truths to be tiptoed around. Just like my childhood all over again. The book was number 23 on the Time's extended list and it was gaining some momentum over the course of the tour. The Painted Garden was, by almost any standard, a successful literary novel. Except by the standard of reviews, which had been uniformly sorrowful, as if a team of surgeons had gathered at Cassandra's bedside to deliver a terminal verdict: Writing two celebrated memoirs does not mean you can write a good novel." Gleefully cruel or hostile reviews would have been easier to bear.

Still, The Painted Garden was selling, although not with the velocity expected by her new publisher, which had paid Cassandra a shocking amount of money to lure her away from the old one. Her editor was already hinting that --- much as they loved, loved, loved her novel --- it would be, well, fun if she wanted to return to nonfiction. Wouldn't that be FUN? Surely, approaching fifty --- not that you look your age! --- she had another decade or so of life to exploit, another vital passage? She had written about being someone's daughter and then about being someone's wife. Two someones, in fact. Wasn't there a book in being her?

Not that she could see. This novel had been cobbled together with a few leftovers from her life, the unused scraps, then padded by her imagination, not to mention her affectionate memories of The Secret Garden. (A girl exploring a forbidden space, a boy in a bed --- why did she have to explain these allusions over and over?) One some level, she was flattered that readers wanted her, not her ideas. The problem was, she had run out of life.

Life Sentences
by by Laura Lippman

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Avon A
  • ISBN-10: 0061944882
  • ISBN-13: 9780061944888